A Fair Way to Choose Candidates for Republican Debate: Learning From the Oscars

The Republican Party is holding its first presidential debate on August 6, to be televised on Fox News. Fox has decided against inviting all 17 declared presidential candidates to the main debate, and will limit inclusion to the 10 candidates with the highest average poll rating among five recent credible (if still undefined) national polls of Republican voters. The controversy over its decisions points to a better way: lessons from how the Oscars came to be nominated with the fair representation (or “proportional representation”) form of ranked choice voting.

With seven candidates to be relegated to a pre-debate forum in the afternoon — albeit an inclusive one for which Fox recently dropped its requirement of one percent standing in the polls — there is much controversy over criteria for inclusion. Some critics like Larry Sabato call for an expanded number of participants in at least this first debate, perhaps by randomly dividing the field into two debates to be held one after the other. Others suggest new standards to establish an even smaller field of the most credible candidates.

Cutting candidates certainly is not an easy call. Of the 17 Republicans, 14 are either a current or former governors or U.S. Senators, with two of the remaining three (Donald Trump and Ben Carson) sure to make Fox’s top 10. That leaves on the sidelines six prominent Republicans who have won statewide, along with the field’s only woman (businesswoman Carly Fiorina).

I’ll set aside the question of being as inclusive as possible and focus on a fairer way for Fox to pick its ten candidates. But first, let’s acknowledge the elephant in the living room. Even though the major parties go out of their way to be inclusive in debates during their nominating process, they have colluded to block any presidential candidates other than their own from general election debates.

With a board co-chaired by two prominent major party activists, the self-appointed Commission on Presidential Debates has established an indefensible debate inclusion rule for the general election that has kept all independents and minor parties out of the debates since Ross Perot’s first presidential run in 1992. It requires candidates to have an average of 15 percent in national polls despite the Catch-22 of such candidates being likely to be relegated to second-class media status in large part to the assumption they won’t be in the debates.

Applied to this year’s Republican field, the Commission’s 15-percent threshold would leave Fox’s stage with exactly one candidate: Donald Trump. The absurdity of that outcome underscores the case for broader debate inclusion, at least in the first Commission-sponsored debates. As a start, the call by Change the Rule for a process to guarantee a third voice in the debates, deserves strong support.

Anyone who thinks the Republican debate could be effective even when including just three of the current candidates as opposed to two of them should support Change the Rule’s call for changes for general election debates.

Let’s return to Fox’s Republican debate. As a start, consider a party’s goals for debates, such as:

• See how potential nominees articulate their policy proposals and hold up under pressure.

• Allow a full airing of the diversity of perspectives within the party.

• Attract as many potential voters to watch so that the party’s eventual nominee is stronger in the general election.

• Help identify the candidate best able to represent the party and win the general election.

Applying these criteria, it’s important not to have an overly majoritarian perspective in the early debates. While the ultimate nominee should reflect true majority support among party backers, these debates are a time to hear more voices within the party, not just echoes. Allowing the party’s diversity of views to have time on the stage means that those backing those views have more reason to watch — and ultimately care about and be invested in the eventual nominee.

So that means striking some ideas based on finding which 10 candidates comes closest to reflecting majority views within the party. For example, a poll could ask each respondent to select 10 candidates, and the top 10 would go to the debate. But this “winner-take-all” approach could block out important views within the party with passionate followers — for instance, a Rand Paul or Ben Carson.

For implications for rules for debate inclusion, let’s turn to people who know something about how to attract and hold an audience: the Academy of Motion Pictures, which organizes the Oscars every year to celebrate achievement in movies. Notably, eight decades ago the Academy adopted the practice for selecting all multiple nominees in all major categories with ranked choice voting (or, in wonk talk, “the single transferable vote”). Their goal was to have a system that maximized the number of Academy voters who felt they had a stake in the outcome on Oscar night – that is, the number who helped some person or movie get nominated.

Here’s how their ranked choice voting system works when selecting more than one winner:

• Academy voters rank potential nominees in a given category in order of preference. Every voter has one vote, but ranks backups to help ensure their vote counts. For voters’, it’s literally as easy as 1-2-3.

• The share of the vote necessary to earn a nomination is determined. That threshold is the lowest share of the vote that only the winning number of candidates can achieve. When the Oscars have five nominees for Best Actor, that means it takes about 17% of the vote to be sure of winning a nomination – that’s because once five actors have 17%, there’s only 15% left for the next highest vote-getter. With 10 candidates getting to the debates, that means that 9.1% would do it.

• Right now, of course, few candidates have at least 9.1% support in the polls. The tallying process essentially simulates what happens in presidential caucuses. First, imagine if every voter were standing behind their favorite candidate. If your favorite has more than 9.1% support, then that candidate has earned in the debate, and some of you can go to your second choice. (More precisely, an equal portion of each ballot goes to the first choice for a total of 9.1%, and the remaining value of each ballot is added to the totals of the second choice.) Once all the votes have been counted for next choices, we’re now left with some winners and mostly candidates still short of the threshold. At that point, the last-place candidate is eliminated, and all that candidate’s votes are counted for the next choice on each ballot at full value. This process of distributing votes continues until 10 have been selected.

• For the Oscars, ranked choice voting means that some 83% of Oscar voters typically help elect a “candidate” in their category — best actor, best director and so on. (For Best Picture, they modified this counting process a few years ago when allowing an undefined number of movies to be nominated – still using a ranked ballot and still generally trying to make sure that as many Academy voters have a hand in nominating a process, but changing the specific counting rule.) For picking 10 candidates to debate, you’d have more than nine in ten Republicans feeling directly represented on stage, with most of the rest happy with one or more of the candidates.

For Fox, this process would mean not relying on the mathematically-questionable task of averaging five polls that will leave some candidates out due to a tiny difference that will be far less than the polls’ margin of error. Instead, they would do a single poll in which they ask respondent to rank the candidates in order of preference – asking people to rank 10 should be fine, and something most Republican voters would be ready to do at this point. We already see plenty of use of “second choice polling,” as I wrote about last week with Molly Rocket. This poll would be a time to push poll respondents to think more about the candidates in a survey that was focused only on the task of identifying candidates for the debate.

This same ranked choice process could be used as debates proceed. If they decide to narrow who’s on stage after Iowa and New Hampshire, for example, they could have Republicans living in states holding the next contests to use ranked choice voting to five debates, for example, and later on reduce the field to three or even two.

Going forward, Republicans would also be wise to use a ranked choice voting ballot in each primary and caucus to determine that contest’s real winner. Guides to parliamentary procedure like Robert’s Rules of Order recommend ranked choice voting when people can’t vote repeatedly in person, and hundreds of significant organizations do so –including nearly every political party in Canada and the United Kingdom, such as the Labor Party’s leadership contest right now. That is, when you establish your number of winners as one, it takes getting a majority of the vote in the final “instant runoff” round of counting to win. If maintaining his frontrunner status in polls, for example, Donald Trump would need to show he wins one-on-one against his toughest opponent.

That’s what the Oscars have been doing for Best Picture ever since they allowed up to 10 nominations. Instructively, they still allow a “plurality vote” when there are only five nominees in categories because it can make for good television- e.g., the “upsets” that keep people watching are almost always by a person or movie that is benefiting from a split in the majority. For Best Picture, however, the Academy decided it was more important to get the outcome right. That same calculus should govern how we vote for president, starting with large field nomination contests.

There’s probably not time for Fox to change its rules for August 6, but let’s hope organizers of upcoming debates find a better way to determine who’s on stage. Ranked choice voting would be a good place to start.

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